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The End of The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.

The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.

Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.

Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.

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He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.

He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.

Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.

It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.

Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.

Roundup: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

Classic movies tend to linger. Last month, TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and wrote about here, offered a range of marvelous movies.

I covered festival events, discussions and interviews and watched or reviewed films from every decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. Besides my blog, reports and articles appeared elsewhere online. I’m also writing articles for a new, independent film print edition planned for future publication.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbThis year, I was finally able to see a 40-year-old past Best Picture Oscar winner at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, a film I had never seen in any format. Now, I think every adult should see it. What an inspiring movie.

Besides the new Rocky review, my other TCM festival reviews also include thoughts on the live interviews as applicable. Among the new reviews: thoughts on Stanley Kramer’s brilliant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s powerful Boyz N The Hood (1991) featuring Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and Vincente Minnelli’s lively, inventive The Band Wagon (1953) starring Fred Astaire.

Happily, I’ve also discovered Frank Borzage’s restored, Rachmaninoff-themed I’ve Always Loved You (1946), Josef von Sternberg’s striking Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, and I enjoyed seeing Elia Kazan’s insightful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire on the big screen for the first time.

John Frankenheimer’s conspiracy-themed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), about an assassination plot to control the United States of America by a global Communist cabal, was an incredible moviegoing experience—also at the Chinese. It was introduced by Angela Lansbury.

In addition to the interesting discourse on journalism in movies and composer Michael Giacchino’s audio-visual presentation on making the musical score for film, I had the pleasure of watching Faye Dunaway, who’d previously introduced an anniversary screening of another still-timely picture, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, interviewed at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre. Dunaway, a glamorous movie star whom I found intelligent and discriminating about her career, did not disappoint. At that point, I’d already run into the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, who was there for a screening of All the President’s Men, and met fellow movie bloggers and buffs, including TCM curator Charles Tabesh after a press conference. Socially, the best aspect was trading thoughts with moviegoers from across the world.

Classic film fans might also be interested in new Western critiques of Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) co-starring Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck and the 1946 version of The Virginian starring Joel McCrea, both screened at the Autry Museum of the American West.

As much as I enjoy seeing new movies, and I do, I must say that I appreciate the classics more on the larger screens and I think they get better with age. I was filled with a similar rush last year with the TCM-screened movies—film noir Too Late for Tears with Lizabeth Scott, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music—and, afterwards, the same sense of motion picture withdrawal.

Good movies leave me wanting more.

Movie Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Six years after Tim Burton adapted Lewis Carroll’s children’s tale of Alice in Wonderland, the Walt Disney Studios brings Burton back as a producer, teamed again with screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Maleficent) and the same cast, in a sequel directed by James Bobin. The result, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is entertaining if underwhelming.

Alice_Through_the_Looking_Glass_(film)_posterSeen in IMAX 3D at Comcast’s Universal CityWalk in Universal City, California, the movie pops off the screen with wildly colorful characters, settings and situations. When plot points converge and gain steam, however, things go limp. Lead actress Mia Wasikowska as Alice has less to do because the character goes from serious young woman with something to learn to heroic captain of her own ship (in Victorian England), which modernizes yet mixes the story’s context and raises the bar for whatever lesson Alice has yet to learn. The lesson, it turns out, is acting within limits.

This idea has marvelous potential, which is partially redeemed in the main conflict involving Time (absurdist Sacha Baron Cohen of Hugo and Borat), a character that controls life and death in Underland with a source called the Chronosphere. Alice, facing another difficult life decision and led back to Underland through the “looking glass” by the late Alan Rickman-voiced blue butterfly, encounters Time, seizes the metallic Chronosphere and darts into a new adventure. Alice seeks to revive the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), known here as Hatter, by going back in time to right presumed wrongs.

Instead, Alice discovers other wrongs. The same characters, including Anne Hathaway’s White Queen and Helena Bonham Carter’s exiled Red Queen, appear throughout Alice Through the Looking Glass. Once again, Carter (Cinderella, Suffragette), in cahoots with Time, is the big-headed villainess.

If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. The film skates on visual appeal with Jules Verne and Gothic influences and the promise of unbundling character backstories contained in Woolverton’s script. At best, Depp’s Mad Hatter refusing to be like his father (Rhys Ifans) and Wasikowska’s Alice refusing to be like her mother echoes nicely as both characters discover similarity and difference and strive to remain friends in a test of unresolved conflicts.

Problems arise with the climax.

With Underland in danger of crumbling, and symbolic scenes of escaping a madhouse, Alice Through the Looking Glass employs an already well-worn tread of revising a villain’s past (i.e., Maleficent) to explain and rationalize certain behavior. Good is bad and bad is good, or some such approximation and, here, none of it is reasonably addressed or resolved. Indeed, some of it contradicts what happened in Alice in Wonderland. Worse, in a movie for children, Woolverton leaves multiple loose ethical ends and ties Alice, once a warrior challenging tradition for her own sake, down to an act of altruism, making her a conformist after all. Other notions—the Mad Hatter’s intuition, for instance—are tossed in at the last minute.

The moving pictures of Time’s clock parts, such as the Seconds and Minutes, and costumes, including Alice’s embroidered Chinese getup for the party, by Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Into the Woods) are brilliant and Alice Through the Looking Glass is at times stunning to look at and behold. A closer look reveals its flaws.
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Travel: McCrea Ranch

Last night’s Cowboy Cookout and Ranch Tour at movie star Joel McCrea’s ranch in Southern California was perfect. The air was a bit chilly. But, with everyone helping to make the annual Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation fundraiser a success, from bus driver Pete and ranch staff to the poet, the band and McCrea’s grandson Wyatt, who lives there, the place was warm, relaxed and rooted in Western culture. Guests added Hollywood glamour.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

You’ve probably seen Joel McCrea’s movies. Whether romancing Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Veronica Lake in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or leading as handsome, freethinking young Dr. Kildare or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he was a commanding presence on screen. But the underrated, underappreciated actor—who was 6’4 in height—was most comfortable in Westerns, appearing with his wife Frances Dee in Wells Fargo, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Wichita, as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, opposite Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, usually as lead and hero of the motion picture. I’d recently seen him as the title character in The Virginian, the 1946 Western. After that, McCrea appeared in mostly Westerns, including his last picture, 1976’s Mustang Country.

Apparently, the Golden Age-era movie star made the Western part of his life. Encouraged by his mentor, humorist Will Rogers, McCrea bought the first thousand acres of private ranch property in Ventura County—what’s now northern Thousand Oaks, California—in the early Hollywood years and made ranching a labor of love. Eventually, Joel McCrea would buy a sprawling ranch where he lived with his wife of 57 years and raised three sons, Jody, David and Peter. Today, a small portion of the original McCrea Ranch in the Santa Rosa valley is left, including the main house McCrea had built and remaining outbuildings, such as the bunkhouse, chicken coop and milk house.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Yesterday, foundation docents and park staff showed the grounds. There’s a road leading up to the house, with a large kitchen and original appliances—including the elevated refrigerator to accommodate McCrea’s height—master bedroom, reading or sun room, Mrs. McCrea’s writing room, living room and the boys’ rooms above the garage. It’s a stone’s throw from the avocado-shaped swimming pool and the trees and vegetation Mr. and Mrs. McCrea planted. The 1,400-square foot visitor’s center has photographs and films on McCrea and his family in movies and at the ranch. Being there, it’s easy to imagine Joel McCrea riding horses and milking cows (he did both). After he died in 1990, Frances moved into the bunkhouse. Mrs. McCrea never lived in the main house again.

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McCrea Ranch Main Home. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The house he’d had designed and built is filled with fireplaces, books—Frances McCrea was an avid reader and Joel McCrea, whose forefather signed the Declaration of Independence, was a serious student of American history—and portraits of Lincoln and Washington. This is a modest, family home, which is not open to the public. So, while the property meets the foundation’s goal to conserve the region’s history and lifestyle, and South Pasadena native McCrea is the embodiment of the healthy, tanned, good-looking, hardworking outdoorsman with which one associates Southern California, the rustic ranch evokes the man and his chosen values. It is here that the movie star lived, worked and enjoyed privacy. The place exudes McCrea’s unique ability to shuttle between relaxed, easygoing charm and hard-driving loyalty to one’s personal code.

Donors attending last night’s Cowboy Cookout—including Western artists and intellectuals such as Eric Heisner, William Wellman, Jr., whose father directed McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady and Buffalo Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner (Contagion, Tron, CBS’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Gods and Generals, ABC’s How the West Was Won)—joined Wyatt McCrea in toasting McCrea Ranch as a place worth preserving as it once was. So do I, especially to study, experience and honor McCrea Ranch as home and land where Joel McCrea cashed in on what he’d earned—as an example of where a man once lived the honest, productive life he’d portrayed in the movies.

Movie Review: Forty Guns (1957)

The raw, lusty, raging Forty Guns, written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller, cuts across genres and landscapes to forge its own way. Like a strong cowboy, tough pioneer or good Western, Forty Guns, screened at LA’s Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park with an introduction by Western movie scholar Andrew Patrick Nelson, comes out fast and hard and never lets up except where it ought to go easy.

Beginning with a great open range shot, finding a lone wagon in the foreground and letting loose a stampeding roar of hooves that envelops the wagon and its driver (Barry Sullivan), the audience sooner than later learns a lot about the wagonmaster, the land and the stampede.

The land is weathered and dusty and unforgiving—so is the rampage, which is also long and purposeful—and the wagon man is undaunted. In an outstanding single shot which foretells the showdown to come, the long line of galloping horsemen splits into two lines encircling the chipped, rickety wagon. As they do, the man holds on to the reins while his horses go into a wild rage as the stampede descends and he doesn’t let go. Sure and steady of hand and manner, he is the man to watch.

As the dust settles and the riders go off, fading the heart-racing opening sequence into a slow, distant thunder, and the opening credits roll with Harry Sukman’s thrilling musical score, the camera pans past forty gun-toting cowboys toward a lone figure in the lead—why, it’s a woman!—and there goes indomitable Barbara Stanwyck.

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Then comes the town setup, with every detail factoring into the intricately mythical plot, from a child jumping rope and a stagecoach arrival to a lonely, beautiful woman making eyes at a new stranger in town. Part of the appeal of this raunchy 1957 movie is its cross-generational, cross-cultural contrasts and it’s nothing if it’s not about women’s liberated sexuality, the West and the man-woman relationship. Fuller introduces and embeds themes of aging, too, and other interesting subtexts.

But he leaves exposition to a balladeer (Jidge Carroll) who sings of a “High Ridin’ Woman” with a whip, one of several cheeky moments, and how she’s full of life and full of fire. This would be Stanwyck’s pre-Big Valley rancher and property owner, a matriarch lording over the area with her 40 dragoons. The woman’s name is Jessica Drummond—the balladeer calls her “the boss of Cochise County”—and when she’s not ordering men around and inspiring songwriters to croon at the bathhouse, she’s looking after her possessions and rationalizing the bullying actions of her much-younger brother Brockie (John Ericson). That brings Jessica Drummond into conflict with the wagonmaster she nearly ran down but didn’t.

His name is Griff Bonnell (Sullivan). He’s an avenger who’s come to town to exact justice with a criminal that works for Drummond, which he does, and he has his own score to settle. In scene after scene, the tension builds as Griff and Jessica stake their claims. Griff walks slowly by the town courthouse before coming up on Brockie and putting him in his place, underscoring that he aims to restore order and assert the role of a lawman in a wild country ruled by a hard, lonely woman. Brockie and his bunch are like hippies, Beatniks and hooligans, though, shooting up the town, destroying property and snuffing out lives. Griff has his helpers, two strong sons named Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), but he has long-range plans, too, including guiding his youngest son to a more civilized, businesslike life.

That won’t be easy with a wild woman on the loose, her unruly younger brother and a roost of half-men who let themselves be run into submission by Jessica Drummond. The sex kitten daughter of the gunsmith stirs, making moves toward Griff’s son Wes, the townfolk come to terms, noticing that Griff’s getting on in years and striding “a little slower” than usual and the Old traditionalist West comes into conflict with the New modern West with California as the ultimate ideal. With drunken, irrational Brockie uprooting the town while people decide who they are and what future they want, and Dean Jagger’s exasperated, cowardly sheriff—the quintessential moderate in the middle of the road—struggling to keep up with Griff, Forty Guns cooks up a mighty grand finale.

“Hyaaahhh!!” yells Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond, riding across her range and finding herself drawn to Griff Bonnell because he openly mocks her and doesn’t back down and if these two sound like Roark and Dominique rustling up romance near the stone quarry in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that sounds about right. After he rejects her, she serves him whiskey, he downs it and she handles his gun like a pro. But Griff lets her know who’ll come out on top after she tells him she’s sure of herself.

“I’m sure you’re sure,” he says, and with that he’s done with her—for now. By the time the famous twister scene plays, with Jessica riding alone in the storm and being dragged by her horse and Griff riding alone in his wagon, the chords of “High Ridin’ Woman” come up and it’s not hard to see where these two ought to be.

Later, she tells him, “I need a strong man to carry out my orders.” His reply—”…and a weak man to take them”—once again foretells the outcome in a way, though not before tragedy strikes and the whole town, including rotten Brockie and his counterpart, boyish Chico, cashes in on their choices and calls the final contest between anarchy and civilization. With the Greek chorus-style balladeer chiming in on forgiveness, death and what it cost to settle the West—with California standing in for the American Dream—the high ridin’ woman, softly in reprise on piano, gets what she’s got coming with humor, pathos and a lot to say about family, legacy, sex and love, womanhood and manhood and, yes, how the West was won.

“I never knew how to like anybody until I learned how to love,” someone says when it matters. For all its lust, raunch and fun, Forty Guns fires up and shows everybody how it’s done.